Teaching Our Children Well: Pedagogy, Religion, and the Future of Philosophy

Article excerpt

The future of philosophy has been a concern for philosophy ever since its inception. We can find any number of examples of this concern dating as far back as Thales, who had to prove that he could have made money if he really wanted to do so, and as recent as the November 2003 issue of Reader's Digest, that presents the following joke:

          Wondering why my niece was returning to college to get a
        master's in philosophy, I asked "What can you do with a degree
        like that?"
          "Well", she replied, "it will qualify me to deal with
        questions like 'What is existence?' 'What is the essence of
        things?', and, 'Do you want fries with that?'"

One can read Plato's Republic or Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as treatises on how to have the best society, where "best" is defined as a place where philosophy not only exists but also thrives. But it is difficult to imagine presently that an educational theory that promotes philosophy as part of the curriculum would be taken seriously, much less a political philosophy whose primary aim is the flourishing of philosophy and philosophers.

What characterizes the good life and philosophy's role in that characterization continues to haunt us. With each characterization, philosophy, which Aristotle referred to as "the queen," must defend its existence. From Plato to Locke and Rousseau, John Dewey and Jane Addams, to contemporary culture, the struggle has raged between the theoretical life--the life of the mind--and the "practical" life, or the life of experience. As old as philosophy is, it seems that philosophy's future has always hung in uncertainty, subject to the whims of the masses. But to consider the future of philosophy, we might also want to consider what philosophy is: what does it teach and how does it affect those whom it teaches?

Philosophy was once a discipline that concerned itself with all areas. Although it tried to offer an account of the world that went beyond what the poets could offer, it did not initially oppose itself to religion. With the rise of Christianity, Western philosophy saw a need to distinguish itself from religion's approach addressing questions regarding the natural world. Although much of Western philosophy was influenced by the Christian beliefs of the philosophers, philosophy as a discipline began to contrast itself to religion.

Certainly one can see that there were good reasons for doing so. Philosophy's emphasis on argument, reason, and universality sets it apart from religious discourse, faith, and the aim of theology. But in so doing, philosophy has also become dishonest about its relationship to religion. The so called secular views of Western philosophy are not completely secular. They often mask a religious ideology that cannot be questioned or discussed, since those who hold the views deny its presence.

Pedagogically, we see more pressing problems. The antagonism between philosophy and religion often places students (and teachers) of philosophy in awkward positions. Those who wish to understand their own religious beliefs more deeply and within the context of larger philosophical questions often feel as though they must choose between philosophy and religion, since no real philosopher continues to hold religious beliefs. This fragmentation of philosophy, of which questions concerning religion are but one example, leaves philosophy impoverished.

Finally, this antagonism precludes philosophy from finding anything useful in religious discourse, a presumption that seems, at best, misinformed. And this antagonism also allows religion to believe that philosophy can only undermine its aims--that philosophy's goal is to supercede religion.

The second, and related, example of philosophy's fragmentation can be seen, ironically, in its relationship to education. Philosophy has lost sight of its original, powerful aim--to know thyself and the world in which we live. …